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Texas State Prisoners Fight for Access to Kosher Meals

by Matt Clarke

After leading a 12-year legal battle that secured an agreement from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) to recognize the right of Orthodox Jewish prisoners to receive kosher meals, Max Moussazadeh was released from prison in 2017. That same year, prisoner Aharon L. Atomanczyk filed a similar lawsuit against the TDCJ for its failure to provide him with kosher food in the medical unit to which he was assigned.

Moussazadeh was serving a sentence related to his role as a lookout in a 1993 Houston robbery that resulted in a murder. In 2005, while incarcerated at the TDCJ’s Eastham Unit, he complained that being forced to eat non-kosher food violated his religious beliefs.

His grievance was denied.

That same year, Moussazadeh filed a lawsuit accusing the TDCJ of interfering in the practice of his religion in violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) as well as the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

In response to the suit, at a cost of about $8,000, the TDCJ set up a kosher kitchen for regular prison meals at the Stringfellow Unit, part of the complex that includes the Ramsey and Terrell Units outside of Houston. The kosher meals were provided under the TDCJ’s Enhanced Jewish Services Program. Beginning in 2007, the TDCJ transferred all Orthodox Jewish prisoners identified as “practicing” – about 70 men, plus another 90 in the process of converting to Orthodox Judaism – to the Stringfellow Unit. At other TDCJ facilities, kosher food was made available for sale to prisoners.

Kosher meals may not include certain foods such as pork and shellfish, may not mix meat and dairy, and must be prepared with cookware, utensils and trays that are kept separate from non-kosher foods. The preparation and storage of the food items must also conform to Jewish law.

Moussazadeh was assigned to the Stringfellow Unit and consistently ate kosher meals, though he described them as “highly distasteful” since they contained tofu. His lawsuit was then dismissed as moot. He appealed because if he were transferred to another facility, the TDCJ could not guarantee he would continue to receive kosher meals.

In 2012, while his appeal was still pending, Moussazadeh was sent to the maximum-security Stiles Unit as a result of disciplinary infractions. Because of the move, he lost access to kosher meals. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the dismissal of Moussazadeh’s lawsuit, finding the case was no longer moot.

On remand, the district court ruled in favor of the TDCJ and dismissed the case again, this time holding that Mossazadeh’s beliefs were not sincere because he had purchased coffee and candy not certified as kosher from the prison commissary. Moussazadeh again appealed.

The Fifth Circuit found that the failure to provide kosher meals was a substantial burden on Moussazadeh’s religious practice. It rejected the TDCJ’s argument that providing kosher meals to prisoners in higher-security classifications would strain the department’s food budget. The appellate court noted it would cost only around $88,000 for the TDCJ to provide all observant Jewish prisoners with a year’s worth of the most expensive type of pre-packaged kosher meals – less than 0.005% of the TDCJ’s $183.5 million annual food budget. [See: PLN, June 2015, p.42].

That decision prompted the TDCJ to agree to provide kosher meals to observant Jewish prisoners. However, rather than an agreed dismissal, Moussazadeh requested that his suit be put on hold until he was released from prison. That occurred on March 30, 2017, and the suit was then dismissed.

Atomanczyk’s lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court on June 23, 2017. The 40-year-old, who suffers from symptoms similar to multiple sclerosis, was assigned to the Stiles Unit near Beaumont. He argued that the kosher meals provided by the TDCJ were mislabeled – a claim that a Jewish chaplain for the department supported.

Rabbi Dovid Goldstein of Houston, head Jewish chaplain for the TDCJ, said kosher standards were actually not being followed at Stiles.

 “I had to go to Beaumont two weeks ago because the state didn’t know that when you give somebody a kosher TV dinner, you can’t break the seals for them,” he said. “The person who is eating the meal has to be able to see the seal and break it themselves.”

Since “that wasn’t happening,” Rabbi Goldstein called it “a kashrut [kosher] issue.”

“At least 35 states and the federal government have been providing a kosher diet [to prisoners] for years,” observed Luke Goodrich, a deputy general counsel at the Washington, D.C.-based Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represented Moussazadeh. “They have shown that the benefits of respecting religious freedom are worth far more than a few pennies per meal.”

Goldstein has proposed transferring all of the TDCJ’s Jewish prisoners to the three facilities that include the Stringfellow Unit, where not only is there an established kosher kitchen, but also medical and non-medical housing units.

Meanwhile, the district court over Atomanczyk’s case denied the TDCJ’s motion for summary judgment in November 2017 with respect to the issue of administrative exhaustion. That case remains pending; Atomanczyk is represented by the law firm of Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer LLP. See: Atomanczyk v. Texas Department of Criminal Justice, U.S.D.C. (S.D. Texas), Case No. 4:17-cv-00719.

For his part, Rabbi Goldstein has continued to focus on efforts to achieve rehabilitation through religious observance; one of the reasons he has pushed for expanded access to kosher meals is his belief that “a kosher body leads to a kosher-balanced soul.”

“Protecting religious freedom is not only smart, but also the right thing to do,” agreed Goodrich. “Allowing prisoners to practice their faiths results in better behavior in prison and less crime after release – and it respects human dignity.” 



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Related legal case

Atomanczyk v. Texas Department of Criminal Justice